High school, the best poetry audience ever

One way to tell the story of how I came to read poetry desperately and constantly would be: early. I still know by heart a book of nursery rhymes I used to own, with Richard Scarry illustrations. A lot of us, though, had our first serious poetry crushes in, or at least during, high school. At fifteen, while I was struck dumb by Keats in the classroom, I was also buying David Bowie albums, reading the liner notes, and hunting down the books he mentioned there. Hence William Burroughs—who was NOT on the curriculum at the Academy of the Holy Angels—and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was a life-changer. Then Sister Ignatius commanded that I enter a poetry contest at Bergen County Community College, so I copied over my verses and, to my shock because I never won anything, took first prize. The professor-judge told me I’d clearly read a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I’d never heard of (maybe he’s the love-child of Keats and Ginsberg?), so I went home and read him, too. University was where this all gathered speed—taking modernism courses, meeting intense young writers who were also cute boys—but I’m not sure I ever needed poems as urgently I did in high school. Those were such isolated, unhappy years. Give me bad office politics, babies who wake at 5 a.m., even tax forms. It’s all better than being fifteen.

So I am all the more impressed by Beth Konkoski at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She’s the kind of teacher I needed but most of us never get. Yesterday, at her invitation, I drove nearly three hours, ran a workshop for 30 students, read to about 300 in a large auditorium, had lunch with members of her department, and drove three hours home again. She doesn’t run an event of this magnitude every year, but Beth is a poet who meets other writers, like me, at conferences, so she knows her way around po-biz. She is also dedicated and organized: Beth asked some weeks in advance for a few poems I planned to read, especially poems revising myths and fairy tales, and gave them to her students in advance with journal prompts. She is also experienced enough in managing teenagers to make it look like a magical power: who ever heard of 300 highschoolers sitting quietly and with the appearance of respectful attention for a 40 minute poetry reading by some middle-aged person? It also seems to me, from a quick visit, that her large, diverse public school must be unusually supportive of inspired teachers, because the logistics alone were staggering. So many permission slips…

My workshop involved litanies and list-poems, a similar scheme to the one I wrote up for The Exercise Book (which I revisited for ideas earlier this week and man, that really is a good collection). I wanted to frame the reading itself with poems by other writers, so I elicited a bunch of suggestions on Facebook. I then didn’t follow any of them except for Margo Solod’s general directive: “hit ‘em hard.” Which meant, I deduced, not corporal punishment but choosing the most powerful poems I could. I began with a terrific Tim Seibles piece and closed with Mary Oliver, because one of my first Washington and Lee students, Jeanne, said “Wild Geese” had empowered her to depart from the script and be who she needed to be. Of my own, I chose a poem about being a zombie, another about campus sexual assault, some about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, and elegies. The dead pet poems triggered noisy tears from a young woman in the back start—I hope you’ll forgive me, Cellist Girl. A newish poem, “Vasovagal Syncope,” made another young woman run up afterwards: “I have that! I never thought I’d hear a poem about it!”

The questions amazed me most. You know how during the question period after a reading, all the college students will freeze and all the community members shift around uncomfortably? I had thought of pulling a Craig Santos Perez—he tosses cans of Spam to the first audience members who speak up—but I don’t have the throwing arm to reach the back rows, so I just braced myself for nervous silence. Instead, I couldn’t keep up with their raised hands. Okay, there was the sloucher in the first row performing disaffected sarcasm, but almost all of them were writer questions. What do you think about rhyme in contemporary poetry? How do you know when a poem’s done? What’s the most important idea you try to get across to your poetry students? What do you do when you’re staring at a blank page and nothing’s happening? How do you manage self-doubt? The one-on-one conversation afterward was just as urgent. One guy who called himself a “music nerd” asked, “So are there poet’s poets, the way there are obscure, unknown musicians that all the other musicians admire for their skills?” And there was the fiction writer who asked about writing a story in which people are telling a story. “Well, that’s called frame narration,” I began, and he said, “Yeah, but how do you DO it? Is it like, dot dot dot? Is there a way to start in third-person omniscient and then move to first-person?” Man, that kid is in the trenches.

Are there any questions more high-stakes than those, more serious? I liked those students so much for sticking their hands right up in that potentially intimidating space and asking what they needed to know. And I like their teachers so much for making room for this conversation in an era of frantic standardized testing and STEM-field obsession. The music nerds and future scientists need poems, too, and Beth is making sure they have access to them. It’s beautiful.

Big Poetry Giveaway 2014

big poetry giveaway 2014So it’s national poetry writing month again, and shouldering aside all the forces that prevent one from concentrating on any project in a dogged way, I am writing. The plan: draft a long poem, one section per day, for thirty days. The rules: I just have to write a little bit daily, at any time, under any conditions, doesn’t matter if I’m cranky or it seems bad, and I’m not requiring myself to share any of it while it’s in progress, though I may. Yesterday, being April’s fool, I performed my duty on our backyard trampoline. I perched up there with my laptop, typing as the sun set, shivering because I’d stepped into snowmelt in stocking feet. This morning I drafted for half an hour at a desk like a proper poet. Updates soon.

Meanwhile, I realized I’m just in time to fling some books at the universe in the Big Poetry Giveaway 2014 (thanks to Kelli Russell Agodon for organizing this!). If you want to be in the running to receive the following two books, just reply to this blog post by May 1st. I’ll then use a random number generator to select a winner, contact you for your address, and mail them to your planet of residence. Last year, I gave away my third and most recent collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales. Working backwards, I’ll give away two second poetry books this time:

heterotopiafrontHeterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize in 2010, selected by David Wojahn. These poems center on my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, England during the Blitz and the years of privation that followed. Here’s a lovely review by Julie L. Moore in Verse Wisconsin.

]Open Interval[ by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, a National Book Award finalist published by Pittsburgh in 2009. Not only is it an inventive, intellectual, beautiful book, but back in another millennium, when I was a new professor at Washington & Lee, Lyrae, nearing graduation, was my advisee. I’d like to take a tiny bit of credit for helping her get started as a poet, but nope: I just signed her registration forms. I’m going to hear her read at Hollins this Saturday, so if they have copies for her book on sale there, I’ll get her to sign it for you.

See Kelli’s master list for links to the pages of LOTS of other participating poets. Put your name into a lot of drawings and you may have a big pile of inspiring poems to read by the time those cicadas start buzzing (or, southern hemisphere readers, before snow falls).

Speculative spoken word

What to do during a class meeting in which you strongly suspect all the students will be sleep-deprived and unable to complete any assigned reading? Well, snacks, of course. Open-ended discussion, too, of the problems of research writing: my speculative poetry students are, I hope, revising like demons, because version one of their big essay is due tomorrow at 5. I’m also going to show them some speculative spoken word poems and use them to discuss whether speculative poetry is, like, a thing.

I know, of course, that by most measures, it is: fantastic poetry is fostered by multiple communities and has a history that’s decades or millennia long, depending on your perspective. However, some definitions of speculative fiction are potentially very wide, encompassing all kinds of fictionality. It’s “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (Suvin on science fiction). Hume labels as fantasy “any departure from consensus reality.” Calvino identifies fantasy’s theme as “the relationship between the reality of the world we live in…and the reality of the world of thought that lives in us.” Then I think: well, those are pretty good descriptions of poetry by Wallace Stevens, or Bill Manhire, or Mary Ruefle, right? So is speculative poetry just good poetry, or is there a sharper way of drawing the line?

We’ll see what they say tomorrow. Here are the poems I intend to spring on them (trusting that no student reads her professor’s blog to get a jump on the lesson plan). I’ve divided them into a few handy/ spurious categories. My criteria: the poem has to be a performance piece (meaning as much at home in the voice as on the page), and tropes or strategies from sf have to be pretty central (yes, I know that’s even more arguable than the first criterion). A recording also has to be easily available online.

Fan Poetry:

To find poems from fandom—except for “I Am That Nerd,” an influential poem I’ve shown to classes for years—I  ended up scrolling through WAY too many clips of Star Trek’s Data reciting “Ode to Spot” (it’s not the poem I mind, but the extended, painful reaction shots of other cast members). Most of them I found really depressing, but Rostad pointed out a few things about Cho Chang I hadn’t considered.

Shappy, “I Am That Nerd” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJxZfpu-kG0.

Rachel Rostad, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFPWwx96Kew

Poetry is Magic:

And some slam poets are wizards, dude.

Saul Williams, “Ohm” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJHquOEChRg

Megan Falley, “Long Island Medium” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIHiDjFVplg

 

Dystopian Chronicles:

The scary future is happening right now. The implicit argument: realism IS sf. The world we live in is deeply, damagingly weird.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, “Crack Squirrels” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngUa9HjKV8o

Reed Bobroff and Olivia Gatwood, “La Llorona” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKxtq1_ebNg

Shira Lipkin, “Changeling’s Lament” http://stonetelling.com/issue5-sep2011/lipkin-changeling.html

 

Thanks to Max Chapnick, who scouted out many of these during a season attending New York City slams, and some friends who made suggestions over Facebook. If you’re not satisfied, enjoy a couple more. I listened to some Tracie Morris recordings because I really admire her sound poetry.  “Mother Earth” isn’t sound poetry, but it’s sf and I like it. And Tim Seibles’ poetry is pretty page-oriented, but “Natasha in a Mellow Mood” is pretty weird and man, he has a great voice. 

 

Instructions for creating England

My speculative poetry students have been asking brilliant questions during the past two weeks: what’s Tracy K. Smith’s attitude towards a posthuman future in Life on Mars? How does assigning a higher priority to the natural world change Marvin Bell’s sense of what death means? How do Jeannine Hall Gailey’s villainesses differ from their counterparts in Ovid and Hans Christian Andersen, and why? What does James Merrill admire in that other weird spiritualist, Yeats, and what does he reject? This is also a course in research writing, so each student is pursuing a topic and teaching some part of it to the rest of the class. Their presentations have been wildly interesting, though, of course, pulling coherent papers out of a mess of tough questions is a hard thing to do—we’ll see next week how well the actual writing is going.

I’m “working” on my own essays pretty minimally right now: using my classes, for sure, to read and think about research, but not putting fingers to keyboard much. My students’ efforts, though, made me want to try. So, briefly: I’ve been dunking my toes in Lubomir Doležel’s Heterocosmica on and off for a couple of years now, interested in his descriptions of how novelists construct and readers enter fiction’s incomplete possible worlds, and trying to figure out how and why poets summon up possible worlds, too. They certainly do in epic and other long narrative modes, but my gut says that lyric poems can also constitute virtual universes, although they’re even more incomplete. I suspect, for instance, that one reason I prefer reading single-author collections to anthologies, and why knowing a poet’s biography deepens my pleasure in the verses, is that increased data helps me fill in more details of whatever place a poem evokes.

That’s a reader’s approach to poetry’s possible worlds; the writer’s involves a series of technical problems. How, in the space of a few lines, do you absorb a stranger into some alternate spacetime? During those class presentations last week, I realized that one of the poets I’ve been teaching addresses that problem quite overtly. As Chase talked about Todorov in relation to Sally Rosen Kindred’s Peter Pan poems—is Kindred hesitating between realities, as Todorov says fantastic stories do, or do her poems inhabit some straight-up version of the marvelous?—it clicked for me how much her chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue concerns literary world-building. Look at this passage from “What Wendy Darling Tells Her Brother” (full version here):

Don’t you remember
the smell of her—lemon and ash—
her skin’s speckle like wrens’ eggs
and the warm wind of her moving in
off the edge of the bed, to hover
by cool sheets and bring her hands
down on your face
like rain?

Kindred’s Wendy, as the stand-in for the poet in this collection, is struggling to create successfully absorbing fictional universes. In this case, she wants desperately to remind her brother about England and the parents he’s half-forgotten. One of her strategies is to call up sensory detail as vividly as possible–sight, smell, touch. Simile and metaphor are portals, too. Michael in Neverland knows what warm wind and rain feel like, so they might help him remember or imagine. From Wendy’s current vantage, England isn’t exactly real (tangible? available? important?), but the storyteller misses it all the same:

And though it wasn’t real
it was home. And though it was in time
it was ours, the mother and father
who draped the air, their bodies strange
and soft with yearning.
It felt right to have a mother, to live
in the lap of a world I hadn’t made.
Don’t you remember?
It felt just like this story
that I am telling you.

Stories transport us, and certain ones transport us to “the lap of a world” safer and better than the mundane existences we often seem to inhabit. For Kindred, reality is relative and fragile. Wherever you are, you might try hard to believe in an elsewhere–maybe that effort to believe defines you–but your longing can never be fully satisfied. Not only do Neverland and England shimmer a bit, mirage-like, but Kindred’s also invoking the universe of oral storytelling from the pages of a handbound chapbook. This gap between print and voice is one engine, in fact, of lyric poetry’s power: nostalgia for sound, or attempts to represent its complexity in little black characters, drive verse’s turns and repetitions. In Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, the loss of a voiced world also entails all the losses of growing up.

Where are we? How does it feel to be not there? I type these questions into a blog-box, writing and not-writing, reading and not-reading, having just tipped from a long winter into a spring with snow in the forecast. I think Todorov is wrong about genre: fantasy is bigger than he allows, and often entails not just hesitating between explanations but understanding that our wildest speculations can be more real than, say, our social security numbers. There’s no knowing what matters, after all, until you lose it or find a way to step away from it. The oscillations of my professorial life show me that, too. Fantasies about writing’s Neverland, viewed through the portal of teaching English, clarify what’s at stake in both universes.

Buried bulb juts up a spear

More sleet and snow in the forecast, ugh, even as here in western Virginia, snowdrops and crocus and even a few daffodils show the shivering woods in bright spring clothes. I feel winter-locked too. Things have been germinating underground that I can’t talk about much: some hopes that have busted, some that may be hardier. Maybe I’ll be able to leap up from the leaf-mulch of half-graded papers and show some colors soon, but not quite yet.

In the meantime, at the risk of seeming really pretty goofy, here’s news of an inner turn, something that happened a month or so ago and has made me feel calmer. I’d been thinking a lot about ambition. Writers, probably all strivers for beautiful outcomes, have to construct this funny balance. On the one hand, you have to be humble and open about the work, because that’s all that matters and the work won’t tolerate some poet thinking she’s the one in charge. On the other, you have to cultivate arrogance: confidence enough to follow the words in the first place, and then the more public chutzpah involved in getting your work out there. Inspired by VIDA and other projects drawing attention to the weaker networks of women writers, our collective tendency to sidestep struggle and self-aggrandizement, I’ve been plagued by ridiculously heroic meta-ambition. I HAVE to strive, I told myself. Any woman who has the means HAS to, otherwise too few of us will ever see sunlight.

I wondered if that was self-deceptive (“It’s not for my own sake, really, I’m staking out those prestigious journals for my sisters!”). I also noticed that these double pressures to succeed were making me feel inadequate and jealous–more hurt by the inevitable losses, less thrilled by the wins. And then I had not just the thought but the sudden conviction I tried to describe in the verse below, drafted on a February day when you could feel a bit of warmth, a hint that spring would eventually, in fact, arrive. I have the feeling it’s a fragment of process, not a poem yet or maybe ever, but putting those lines together helped me. And I went to the AWP and that sense of smallness we all have at that conference worried me less. I just kept writing down the names of women who said smart, moving things at the various panels and readings I attended, and now I’m going to order their books.

Weed Experiences Trite Yet Nourishing Epiphany

A breath riffles my trichomes:
we are all connected. Sudden sense
of the buried mycelium from which
all creatures sprout: shoots reach
through the air while we root
together invisibly. Why this
consoles a godless poet, I don’t know;
I could say what’s good for one
herb greens the whole field, though
hunger is never so rational; still
I feel relief in every chloroplast,
a hot June slackening of fear.

Writing process blog tour plus AWP detox

Maybe, like me, you’re recovering from the AWP and thinking about focusing on writing again, rather than publishing, networking, and collecting bookfair swag. An annual post-AWP occasion for hard work is April, National Poetry Month in the U.S., when some disciplined souls adopt a poem-a-day regimen. I tried it first in 2012 and shocked myself by producing spring floods of poems, many of them keepers; I tried it again in 2013 and found my brain much more resistant, even though I spent part of the time at an artist’s colony—I was just in a headspace for revision, I think, not generation. This time I may use April to work on a long poem, one segment per day. If a big project is on your mind, you might like to follow some of the links below and consider various writers’ perspectives on process.

Thanks to Jeannine Hall Gailey for tapping me for this blog tour. Jeannine, a superheroic poet if there ever was one, recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington and is the author of three books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, and Unexplained Fevers. She has been featured in The Year’s Best Horror and Verse Daily, and her work has appeared in journals like The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. I met her non-virtual self for the first time at the AWP and the evening was a delight—she’s as warm, funny, and open as her poems, and I would have loved to spend more time with her talking about the writing life. One day…

Here are her answers to the prescribed questions. Below are my own.

1)     What am I working on?

I have a new poetry ms, Radioland, under submission. Who knows if the title will survive the process, but like the one-word titles of my first two full-length collections, Heathen and Heterotopia, “radioland” gestures at an imaginary place. In this case it’s not the wild heath where the unchurched live, or the other-place of my mother’s childhood Liverpool, but the sustaining idea of a communal audience, their heads bent towards receivers in dimly lit rooms across a wide broadcast range. Some of the poems were written during a Fulbright in New Zealand, where I felt decidedly distanced from U.S. feedback circuits—and impressed with the reasonable size of the NZ poetry world, its possible comprehensibility. U.S. publishing feels so vast by comparison—so big that outside of little coteries, no one can possess a sense of common enterprise (the AWP convention certainly dramatizes this). Radioland connects to those preoccupations, but the word’s antiqueness also suggests my father’s life, a recurrent subject in the collection. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925 and died in Philadelphia in 2012, and communication channels were never clear between us. Radioland is where he lives now, in the afterlife of memory and uncanny dreams.

My prose project, one-third drafted, is Taking Poetry Personally, described here.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Like many writers, I’m trying to produce the kind of stuff, in poetry and prose, that I’d like to read but can’t find enough of. In poetry, I crave transport to vivid alternate worlds—sometimes speculative, sometimes just faintly strange. I want the stakes to be high, each poem conveying the author’s urgency. I admire formal intelligence, whether that means deploying received forms or not, and a sense that deep reading is hovering unobtrusively behind the words. I also like kindness and humor in poems, as I do in people. Are my poems all that? I don’t know, honestly. I just know what I’m trying for and probably attaining only sometimes, in fragments.

Taking Poetry Personally is definitely a beast with an unusual number of heads: criticism, memoir, storytelling, theory, anthology. Here I’m trying to restore or reveal the stakes behind the strange behaviors of scholars: why is reading and teaching poetry so important to me?

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Poetry: can’t help it. Criticism: missionary zeal. All of it: to learn about poetry, other people, and myself by following wherever language leads.

4)     How does your writing process work?

When I’m writing critical prose I’m a prima donna: I carve out big blocks of time, write for hours a day, and guard my attention jealously. I find it difficult to carry all those threads around in my head. Putting together a poetry collection is like that, too: I need to think hard in a sustained way.

I write and revise shorter pieces—poems and blog posts—with desperation, whenever the impulse and a half-hour coincide. Any time of day is fine, but I’m generally not a coffee-shop writer; I prefer to close the door on any possibility of interaction. Sometimes, though, I’ll take what I can get. I’ve drafted a lot of lines during quiet patches in my office hours, some in cafes and on planes, and a few on scraps of paper while leaning on my son’s toybox. The associative thinking of poems and blogs, rather than the linear arguments of essays, is just more congenial, easier. I also need to write poems, which changes the game. If I needed to do scholarly writing, I suspect nothing would stop me squeezing time in at every opportunity.

Next week, look for further entries in the Writing Process Blog Tour by the two bloggers I’ve tagged. I don’t know either personally but I like the literary intelligence, a sort of questing quality, I see in their posts.

Ann E. Michael’s most recent collection, Water-Rites, was published by Brick Road Poetry Press in 2012. A poet, essayist, educator, librettist, and occasional radio commentator, she lives in eastern Pennsylvania where she is writing coordinator at DeSales University. Her blog at www.annemichael.wordpress.com  reflects her multidisciplinary approach to literature, art, science, and philosophy.

Joseph Harker is a twentysomething linguist-poet lately of New York City, where you can find him riding the subways to and fro devouring the works of Kay Ryan (this week). He is a textbook Libra in just about every way. His work has appeared in web/print journals such as Assaracus, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Hobble Creek Review, and qarrtsiluni, but are equally likely to find him at his blog, http://namingconstellations.wordpress.com. Please wipe your feet.

Valentine’s Day in the uncanny valley

valentinesOn Valentine’s Day, I was asking my class about the psychedelic weirdness in Natalie Diaz’s poems about her brother’s meth addiction, when I suddenly realized I felt surreal myself: headache, vertigo, a conviction the last leftover scraps of bo ssam had not been such a good lunch plan after all. I muddled through a few more hummingbird gods and human sacrifices in When My Brother Was an Aztec, stumbled home, and slept through romantic dinner reservations.

I did get out of bed, though, for a dreamlike valentine exchange. I’m pretty sure a heart-shaped card from my daughter read:

Roses are red
violets are blue
I love you a lot
shoe new canoe
(idk how you do this for a living)

My son’s note to me contained the immortal verses: “When you do play Scrabble,/ you’re better than the average rabble.” Aw. My husband, too, typed me an android-themed valentine, each line on its own neatly-scissored scrap of scarlet paper. No problem there—we’ve been watching Almost Human, Äkta människor, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we’ve both got artificial intelligence on our biochemical minds. We have a tradition of writing each other sf valentines, like our zombie convergence a few years back; I’m the one going off the deep end recently, writing him verses about narwhals and eighteenth-century brain science. Nonetheless, he presented me with some pretty bizarre sweet nothings, including “I’m half crazy with almost human error,” “more robo-love, more robo-robo-love,” and “I fall upon the thorns of love—I leak!”

I woke up human the next morning and picked up a copy of the New Yorker containing a sort of history-of-atheism essay by Adam Gopnik which, on the whole, I disliked, but a couple of points stuck with me. First, there’s his relabeling of rationalists and believers as Self-Makers and Super-Naturalists, among whom he notes some convergences. For example, plenty of not-very-religious and even outright godless people nonetheless practice holiday rituals. That’s me: I paint eggs come spring and fix a red-white-and-blue pie in July and drag the whole family along with every demented tradition, but I’m a skeptic in most ways. Well, seasonal turns mean a lot to me, and I’m patriotic enough to spend much of my life reading and teaching the U.S.’s damn fine art, but mostly I just like making up weird family activities.

More annoying was Gopnik’s assertion that “nearly all of the major modernist poets were believers.” He cited Auden, Eliot, and Yeats, with Stevens as a counter-example. The first two, sure, and you could add in Marianne Moore, but is it Yeats’ idiosyncratic mysticism really anything at all like Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism? And, ahem, how about the irreverences of Hardy, Frost, Williams, Millay, Langston Hughes, and Helene Johnson, or the syncretic strangeness of H.D.? Oh, that’s right, nearly all of the major modernist poets were also white guys. I love poetry, modernist and otherwise, because it offers an alternative kind of sacred grove, with the worship diffused among every sensation, idea, and syllable the poet attends to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about familial love lately, partly because of Diaz’s powerful book, but also because I’m teaching Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars in another course. I first read her elegies for her father on the train to New York City in May 2012. I was about to give a reading in Bryant Park, and on the return trip, I would visit my father in the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital—not knowing he would die a week later, but suspecting he didn’t have another winter in him. Smith’s father, who worked with the Hubble telescope, becomes nearly godlike in the second section of Life of Mars, which is mostly comprised of a long poem, “The Speed of Belief.” She hated to imagine a world without him. I felt immense pity for my own bedridden, isolated father, but I also thought he had done at least as much harm as good with his eighty-six years. I knew I would grieve but not miss him, and I was right.

I’m currently revising an essay containing the line, “when all-powerful patriarchs run the show, things don’t go well for most of us.” I was raised to be a skeptic, but I do wonder if that intellectual position has remained congenial partly because, for biographical reasons, I just find the idea of a father-god obnoxious, not consoling. I adore Smith’s intelligent, exploratory, deeply felt book not least because it contradicts my pop-psychologizing: her poetry seems agnostic despite its author’s love and admiration for her earthly father. I wonder if my own kindly-fathered kids will continue to feel as they do now—as they have felt ever since they had the words to express opinions. One’s a spiritual seeker and one’s as profoundly rationalist and religion-resistant as anyone I’ve ever met. Well, whatever their future relationship to positronic Christmas elves, both of them can rhyme.

If you need more juice for your poetry battery and your rocketship can take you there, check out two speculative poetry readings next week in which I play a small, humanoid part:

Monday, Feb. 24th, 7 pm, Studio 11 Gallery in Lexington, VA: a night of sf, fantasy, and gothic poetry featuring Sally Rosen Kindred! Come for briefer readings, too, by Mattie Smith, Ted Duke, Brittany Lloyd, Chauncey Baker, and Tamara Lipscomb. Chris Gavaler and I will read from the HOT OF THE PRESSES anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comics.

Thursday, Feb. 27th, 8 pm, Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, WA (an AWP offsite reading): The Superheroes of Poetry, starring Bryan Dietrich, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Sally Rosen Kindred, Jason McCall, Jason Mott, Evan Peterson, and me.

Taking literary criticism personally

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, there’s a lull in your chores and caretaking responsibilities (ha), you need a break from your own writing, and you’re at liberty to read anything you want. What would you rather pick up?

a) a novel

b) a collection of poems

c)  a magazine full of models who make you feel pocked and frumpy (whoops, gave that one away)

d) a book of literary criticism or theory

Now, scholarly books vary as wildly as any other kind: they can be moving, enraging, clumsy, hilarious, tedious. The best are much more engaging than a badly-written mystery or mediocre poems. And if you’re really invested in a certain field of knowledge, there is occasionally a work of criticism that you’re genuinely excited to pick up—wow, what is x going to say about y? There are even genres related to criticism that anyone might read for fun, such as biographies or memoirs of literary figures, fictionalizations of their lives, or literary responses to famous works, such as Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres. Still, latter categories aside, I read criticism and theory only when I’m preparing to teach or write about related material—that is, only the stuff I need, and only during hours designated for work. Maybe I’m lazy, but I’m guessing even the nerdiest English professors find most books of literary scholarship less than fun to read, even when they’re competent, clear, and informative.

When I read advice essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how academics can learn to prioritize their writing, I think of this Saturday afternoon dilemma. There’s a reason people can’t get the writing done, and it’s not just how distracted we are these days or the perennial difficulty of plunging into demanding projects. I mean no disrespect to the work itself or what we learn by writing it. It’s incredibly hard to produce competent, clear, and informative literary criticism—painstaking work demanding one’s full intelligence and art. Then editors and peer reviewers inform you how much painstaking revision you have to do. Then it takes forever to get published. The whole enterprise is heroic. The problem is that even when these heroic feats are successful, almost no one wants to read the stuff.

There are reasons to write criticism anyway. Bits of the process can be fun. I like reading closely, putting sentences together, and, of course, getting some rare words of praise or a merit raise. Sometimes, too, a literary argument feels truly important, even field-changing; I want to write it and some people will need to read it. Mostly, though, while it involves a brutal amount of labor, finally submitting the ring to Mount Doom doesn’t change anyone’s life much. Deep down, most of us are too sensible to believe that writing literary criticism is the most important thing I could be doing with my short life. So we fritter away time we could spend on writing it—the hours we don’t have to spend on job requirements or supervising a child’s science project or buying groceries—by helping students, baking muffins, posting birthday messages on social media, reading that bad mystery, drafting blog posts. In short, we focus on what does feel important or fun.

I’m committing this particular bit of frittering because I said something too flippant in a department meeting Friday. Deep down, I intoned, leaning across the table with an expression of existential despair, I think scholarly writing is a mug’s game. Perhaps I’m exaggerating my performance a little, but I said those words. Later, I thought, “Gee, maybe that wasn’t such a constructive remark for a senior person to level at a roomful of other English professors at various career stages.” There used to be voting members of the department who had published more scholarly monographs than I, but they keep moving to places like Alaska and the dean’s office, so I have become shockingly senior, a sort of middle-aged tree left standing in a forest recently attacked by the lumberjacks of fate. My eccentric pronouncements might therefore be demoralizing, or even alarming, to colleagues who know I’m currently teaching research writing in a gateway course for English majors and may, in fact, evaluate their own promotion files.

It’s not that I have lost faith in the profession. It’s important to learn how to ground arguments in textual detail, find out what others have written on related subjects, and document how your thesis modifies the existing conversation. I’m beyond grateful when a smart article helps me understand a great poem better, and when good notes allow me to follow another scholar’s tracks. Undergraduate English majors and advanced degree programs should require the skills good scholars practice.

I just think what counts as good scholarship is appallingly narrow, and sometimes we make ourselves miserable trying to follow professional scripts that were ill-conceived in the first place. For the PhD and for promotion at most institutions, sure, you write what they tell you to write, and possibly you resent it, but if you do snatch up that holy grail of tenure at an institution where you can bear to remain, you should ask yourself what is the best way to spend my talents now? And there are myriad good answers, including I’m not going to kill myself anymore to accomplish quests that only a small group of people appreciate unless I’m having a seriously good time on the way. I know that I need to write pretty constantly. I love writing poems so much I would keep at it even if I never had any audience at all. For me, though, the pleasures of generating well-researched prose are mixed with quite a bit of pain, so I’m becoming more focused on outcomes as I choose projects–not the money I’ll earn (again, ha!), but will this project really matter, and to whom?  

Right now I do feel sure about what I’m writing. I’ve changed the subtitle of this web site to match my book in progress, which is critical and theoretical but also narrative—what Joyce Carol Oates just called bibliomemoir in a review for the New York times. Taking Poetry Personally addresses how and why we read twenty-first-century poetry. It’s a crossover project, meant to interest general as well as specialist audiences–to expand poetry’s audiences, in fact, by drawing attention to poems I love. Each chapter is keyed to a single poem reprinted in full, so it will be a sort of anthology, too.

I find these chapters insanely demanding to research and write because I’m doing all the scholarly legwork and then hiding it (maybe the endnotes will disappear entirely in later versions, though I’m keeping them for the moment). But it’s the most important work I can think of to do right now. Since I’m tenured and otherwise credentialed, and I’m part of the gloriously open-ended and generalist-valuing enterprise that is liberal arts education, why should I do anything else? I retain huge respect for good scholarship in conventional modes and the dedication it takes to produce it. But I’ve rounded the turn now into the second half of my time on the planet, and writing in a respectable, professorial way for tiny audiences just seems too low-stakes. Most days, when it comes down to it, I’d rather bake muffins.

Same sex marriage–plus, talking cats!

Our daughter said to us recently about our first cat, Gladys: “All I really remember is her voice, the funny things you used to pretend she said. At the time I wasn’t sure what powers grownups had. I thought maybe you were actually translating.”

Chris and Gladys 2

Gladys, a petite gray-and-white creature we adopted in the early nineties, had a tough New Jersey accent and was intensely sarcastic. We must have ventriloquized her often, before we had kids who grew up and made our house noisy, because I can remember my friend Rosemary, over for dinner, laughing and saying directly to the little feline on the floor, “Oh, Gladys. You’re so funny.” Gladys was kind of hilarious, an improbably convincing and voluble joint id. Funnier than I am solo, anyway, although Chris manages to entertain without pretending to translate housepets.

My memory of Gladys’ voice resonates oddly with one of the books I just finished teaching: James Merrill’s Ouija-inspired poetic sequence. “The Book of Ephraim” is, among many other things, a romantic story: the characters JM and DJ (the latter based on Merrill’s partner David Jackson) spend their evenings together spelling out messages from their wickedly charming spirit-guide Ephraim. They also have houseguests and affairs, swim in the nude and grieve lost friends, and hunker down with their cat Maisie in cold seasons between episodes of glamorous world travel. Ephraim is their collaborative writing project, a folie á deux, and a reliable companion who flirts with them both and flatters them endlessly; his “backstage gossip” has a way of revealing aspects of their human relationship. Together, JM and DJ are witty, cultured, urbane, inventive—a brilliant match. They are also unequal in power and imperfectly happy. For example, when Ephraim tells the rich and increasingly successful writer JM that he’s done with reincarnation but DJ requires a few more tiresome rounds on earth, is the struggling novelist David Jackson consciously or unconsciously expressing certain mundane relationship frustrations? Maybe so, but as Merrill writes, “even the most fragmentary message [is]/ Twice as entertaining, twice as wise/ As either of its mediums.” In Ephraim, they’ve given voice not only to their individual hopes and doubts but something bigger, weirder, dreamier than either man alone.

That “something” might be defined as their marriage, although Merrill and Jackson weren’t allowed to marry then. However, just before I taught this poem last (2009), same-sex marriage was legalized in Connecticut (2008). Like many other Americans in my generation and older, I’m moved and delighted but deeply surprised that social attitudes and even laws are changing rapidly now—even in Virginia, the attorney general recently announced his disapproval of our same-sex marriage ban. I certainly see a shift in social attitudes in my classroom. I remember teaching “The Book of Ephraim” to an earlier group of Washington and Lee students, maybe seven or eight years ago. Someone made a homophobic remark and I told him sharply that his comment was offensive. That’s one of very few times in my career that I’ve cut off a student—usually I’ll try a counter-question or make space for his fellow-students to issue a challenge, because I think that’s ultimately more mind-changing, to hear disapprobation from peers rather from that suspiciously feminist-looking teacher up by the blackboard. To his credit, though, the student thought about it for a few weeks then came to me and apologized. He was just nervous and trying to be funny, he told me, but he realized his joke had been—what was the phrase he used? Narrow-minded? Unkind? Wrong?

Now, if any of my students are troubled to be studying a poem concerning homosexual love, I can’t detect it in their conversation or their papers. Maybe this reflects a new decorum rather than a deep change in attitudes. Still, it’s an improvement. There’s more room to talk about it as a love poem, a cold war poem, a mystical poem, or in other productive ways—better work is possible when you don’t have to justify the material’s place on the syllabus to start with. And this group of students, mostly sophomores, handled Merrill’s challenges pretty brilliantly.

Meanwhile, at home, we have a kitten, Poe, who is practically rabid with cabin fever and prone to pouncing on us demonically with hip-high leaps and extended needle-claws. Surely I have a poem to write about this crazed black cat with a Gothic moniker, but for the moment Chris and I are just trying to get his voice right. Our second cat, Flashlight, got drowned out by the uproar of jobs, child-raising, and book-publishing, although after the kids went to bed, she did enjoy dropping decorum and swearing like a sailor. When I channel Poe now, he sounds Homer Simpsonish, but when Chris-as-Poe cracks wise he sounds, disturbingly, just like Chris. How will the next decade of our marriage sound? I’m not sure, but it’s bound to be bigger, weirder, dreamier than any one human being babbling to herself.

Chris and Poe (1)

Skidding on the banana peel of literary judgment

Goodreads is driving me banana. (After misspeaking recently, I decided “going banana” sounds significantly crazier than the plural.) I resolved to keep better track of what I read, both out of curiosity and because my memory is really not sharp enough for those year-in-review pieces I get asked to write. (Alternately, somebody suggested LibraryThing, but I’d had a brief flirtation with Goodreads before, so I decided to have one more go at a familiar system.) But in logging books, you rate them, and I have a feeling I’m doing this ALL WRONG. That is, I’m saving five stars for the books that move or dazzle me memorably, the books I’ll keep coming back to. That criterion is idiosyncratic: the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson would be a no-brainer for many, but When the Water Came by Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross is also up in that stratosphere for me, both because those interview-poems are so affecting and because reading them launched a new interest in documentary poetics. The latter changed the direction of my thinking; I understand it might not change yours. In the meantime, I’m giving Mary Szybist’s National Book Award-winning Incarnadine four stars, because it’s merely a really, really good collection. Some of the poems are amazing, but like all collections of disparate works, the book’s a little uneven (so is Dickinson, to be fair). I see why those smart judges admired Incarnadine, that is, but it did not shake my world. The banana segment of this personally reasonable reaction is that nobody knows my weird criteria, so in rating books this way I’m liable to offend a lot of author-acquaintances. Besides, poetry needs all the boosterism it can get, right? Even if you say, no, it needs critical judgment in this age of grade inflation, what good does one tiny star-clicker do in the scheme of things, anyway, with her fine discriminations?

I find myself considering questions of evaluation in the classroom, too, and not just in grading undergraduate essays (once I could have written an angsty post about grading, but after a few thousand tries I find myself pretty relaxed about it). “What’s good about this?” is a typical question in creative writing workshops, but in literature classes we more often ask “how does this work?” or “what kind of poem is this?” or “how does this fit in a chain of influence/ reaction?” Certain kinds of literature classes do invite literary judgment, especially courses that stretch or challenge the canon in some way. And we make those private pronouncements all the time: this famous author is amazing; that one does not float my banana boat. Still, when a grumpy student complains about some text on the syllabus, I’m likely to reply that we’ll have a better conversation if we start with the assumption it’s worth reading. “What’s interesting about this?” is usually a more productive prompt than “Is this any good?” It’s rooted in a better stance towards the universe. Snarkiness has its own dark delights, but aren’t curious, open-minded, open-hearted people just more fun? Don’t you know someone whose eternal enthusiasm, whose assumption that everything and everyone is fascinating, make him or her a delight to spend time with?

Yet I found myself having a little temper-tantrum last Friday. I’m teaching Twenty-First Century Poetry, focusing the readings on lost, damaged, or imaginary places. For the first few weeks, I’m revisiting a unit I did once before on poetry after Hurricane Katrina (I blogged a bit about it two years ago). We began with When the Water Came, some clips from Spike Lee’s amazing documentary When the Levees Broke, and readings about documentary poetics. Then, before moving onto some related poems I admire by Nicole Cooley and Patricia Smith, I taught the controversy about Raymond McDaniel’s prize-winning book Saltwater Empire. An essay by Abe Louise Young and a rather indirect retort by McDaniel give more information, but in brief, McDaniel built a series of collage poems out of survivor testimonies from the Alive in Truth web site (which has been taken down since). He did not seek permission to quote the materials, as the site directed him to do, but he did put a tiny little acknowledgement on the copyright page (not in the Notes section, weirdly). My class read just part of the series, collectively titled “Convention Centers of the New World,” and compared it to another poem from the same book, “This Is a Recording,” which does sample a Bo Diddley song but seems to represent something more like a personal experience of listening to music in some lonely southern darkness.

We had lively conversations about ethics versus aesthetics: of course writers are always transforming other sources, but is there a bright line somewhere designating kinds of appropriation that are just wrong? The college I teach at has a strong honor system, so not surprisingly, some students argued that McDaniel’s poems simply constitute plagiarism. Others found them beautiful and powerful, and suggested the quality of the art could mitigate his failure to seek the appropriate permission.

Truly, strong differences of opinion are great in a classroom, and I’m glad to have made space for them. And I see why people find McDaniel’s poems beautiful and powerful. Yet even if it were possible to put aside the ethical problems, McDaniel’s poststructuralist justifications drive me banana. Yes, yes, we and our voices are fragmented and multiple, but this is an academic piety I’ve grown up with and I’m bored of it. Poetry is an art of implication, of mysterious and not-quite-tameable resonance, and yet I’m no fan of the fashionable jumpy, extremely anti-narrative mode (well, except for the very very best stuff). It strikes me as lazy.  I want to shout: “Do the work! Make the connections, or at least give me enough hints that I can do it! Know what your own damn poem is ABOUT!” And, um, I kind of did in class, although I wasn’t very shouty.

So there I was, potentially closing down interesting dissent with my own strong internal rating system, and only two weeks into the term, no less. It seemed unwise to me, but I feel so fiercely about the whole business–I take poetry personally, and I think others should, too. The lone banana, split. It’s a fabulous group of students, though, so I suspect they’ll bounce back with their own fierce age-of-Google opinions and puree me.